What Is Trumpism?
Once More Into the Breach
Every few months it seems there’s another round of the interminable “fascism debate” about Trump: Is it meaningful to label Trump, his movement, and the G.O.P.,—or at least a significant faction of the GOP, —fascist? To call it a “debate” is perhaps a bit of a stretch. There is not a lot of engagement with substantive arguments; there’s mostly repeated insistence that the proposition is either self-evidently true or self-evidently absurd and not worth taking seriously. Sometimes it just descends to the level of just mocking and minimizing whatever evidence is presented. This is all frustrating to say the least and whole thing just seems to keep going in circles: The same points keep being made ad nauseam. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to return to do it all seeing the below Tweet by Corey Robin, one of the main skeptics of the “fascism frame” as he calls it. I want to say, I am not trying to pick on Robin as an individual,—I’ve always admired his writing and thought a great deal, I just happen to think he’s got some of the more sophisticated and developed arguments in this conversation, so I think it’s instructive to look at them closely.
What “They” Say
I’m going to try reconstruct to the best of my ability, Robin’s position vis a vis Trump and fascism. Far from being a threat to democracy, the G.O.P. and Trump are extraordinarily weak in terms of mass appeal. Rather than representing the emergence of a new type of muscular mass politics on the American scene, Trump had to rely on the oldest tools of American conservatism: the anti-majoritarian features of the Constitutional order: the Senate, the Courts, etc. In a Jewish Currents interview in December of 2020, Robin said,
It’s ironic to me that people would choose this moment, and Trump’s presidency, to assign the label “fascist” to the right, for what fascism is about, above all else, is a politics of strength and will. That’s why fascists traditionally loathe the constitutional order: because they think it constrains the assertion of political will. The irony of Trumpist/GOP politics is that it is completely dependent upon the constitutional order. In that regard, it’s almost the complete opposite of fascism.
Trump’s rise actually shows the decadence and brittleness of the conservative regime. Back in 2017, Robin wrote:
Once Trump secured the nomination, the party elders figured: What the hell, let’s roll the dice.
Having achieved so many conservative goals — a labor movement in terminal decline, curtailed abortion rights, the deregulation of multiple industries, economic inequality reminiscent of the Gilded Age, and racial resegregation — the right can now afford the luxury of irresponsibility. Or so it believes. As we have seen in the opening months of the Trump presidency, the conservative regime, despite its command of all three elected branches of the national government and a majority of state governments, is extraordinarily unstable and even weak, thanks to a number of self-inflicted wounds. That weakness, however, is a symptom not of its failures, but of its success.
Moreover, in power, elected Republicans and members of the bureaucracies routinely overrode and ignored Trump—he did not and does not yield absolute power over the G.O.P. Robin does concede there’s something at least a little fascist about Trump’s self-expressed views:
Trump’s extended cry of pain here seems to contain at least some of the elements of “passionate nationalism” that the historian Robert Paxton describes as fascism’s essence: a sense of grievous dishonor and shame, played out across oceans and continents; the stab in the back from cosmopolitan elites (Obama is “economist to the world” who commits “economic treason”); a longing for re-enchantment of the state; a desire for national restoration and global domination.
But ultimately Trump is just vulgar and not that grandiose: he’s too much about the economy and wealth, not some grand project of national rebirth. For Robin, Trump is not a fascist, he’s just a conservative. This position is somewhat complicated by the fact in Robin’s writing he has pointed to deep continuities between the reactionary projects of fascism and mere conservatism, but recently he has made hints of revising that perspective.
For Robin and others, there are important institutional and ideological components missing from Trumpism that would make it meaningfully fascist: the lack of a mass, disciplined, “totalitarian” party organization; the absence of tightly-knit politicized civil society groups adjacent to the party; the lack of masses of military veterans to staff an organized paramilitary wing; the lack of a utopian, future-facing ideology; the lack of a convincing threat from the left and organized labor to galvanize fear and support. I think in many of these cases these things are not entirely lacking so much as highly attenuated or altered due to modern circumstances, but I’ll return to that later.
At this point, I think we should note an important political dimension to this debate. Some opponents of the fascism thesis on the left seem concerned with what the practical upshot of the “fascism discourse” would be. Namely, it would entail a kind of acceptance of liberal hegemony over the field of discourse, and since to their mind liberalism is the primary obstacle to a true left, its conceptions should be contested and rejected rather than endorsed. Moreover, by calling Trump or his movement fascist, we thereby endorse the empowerment of the national security state to go after “domestic terrorism,” and we know from the war on terror what extreme risks this security logic has both for civil liberties and democratic accountability.
What I Think
From the very beginning, I felt there was something fascist about the emergence of Trump. This has only been confirmed over time, particularly with the events of January 6. Obviously, taking into account every empirical detail, Trump and the classical fascisms of the 20th century Europe are quite different. Nazi Germany, where so many of some of our more cartoonish notions of fascism come from, represents a particularly virulent case. First of all, we should set aside success or failure, strength or weakness as a criterion for judging if there is something “fascist” about Trump: the identification of fascism with strength and success is a product of fascist propaganda, not objective analysis. There were also what Paxton calls “unsuccessful fascisms” and important precursors to fascism in Europe. I’ve contended that the conversation about Trump’s fascism should include consideration these failures and precursors, particular those of the French Third Republic, like General Boulanger’s failed coup in the 1880s, the Dreyfus Affair at the turn of the century, and the agitation of the many fascioid groupuscules in the 1920s and 1930s. France for me is a particularly fruitful place to look for parallels: it had a longstanding democratic-republican tradition unlike Germany and Italy, this tradition was rooted in the social basis and ideological valorization of a small-owning class, and it also had a Right wing with “porous boundaries between the extreme and conservative right” to quote the historian Chris Millington.
In his argument against the historians who contend that France was “immune” to fascism in the 1930s, the French sociologist Michel Dobry wrote they created a “suitably imaginary" model of fascism” that narrowly “defines fascism in terms of its results in Italy and Germany, that is, in terms of what it did after it came to power in these countries. In doing so, they ignore the many expedient compromises that Italian and German fascists made before they came to power, including Mussolini's and Hitler's participation in electoral politics. By applying such an ahistorical model to France, ‘they demand of the radical right not only that it define itself with more clarity than original fascism— Italian— but that it undertake everything, immediately and openly.” (in, Soucy 1995) I think this is very close to what the skeptics in the fascism debate are effectively doing as well: replacing a dense, complex, contingent, and evolving political picture with a teleological narrative based on caricatural and reductive understandings of the terms in question.
The Political Rise and Location of Trumpism
It might be helpful to introduce a higher-order concept that includes these precursors and cousins as well as classical fascism itself. I’m going to borrow “Caesarism” from Antonio Gramsci, although there are problems with that term. Here’s how Gramsci characterizes the emergence of a Caesarist figure in The Prison Notebooks:
When the crisis does not find this organic solution, but that of the charismatic leader, it means that a static equilibrium exists (whose factors may be disparate, but in which the decisive one is the immaturity of the progressive forces) ; it means that no group, neither the conservatives nor the progressives, has the strength for victory, and that even the conservative group needs a master…This order of phenomena is connected to one of the most important questions concerning the political party-i.e. the party's capacity to react against force of habit, against the tendency to become mummified and anachronistic.
According to Gramsci, modern Caesarism does not necessitate a military coup, in fact it is more likely in its modern forms to not involve the military. “In the modern world trade-union and political forces, with the limitless financial means which may be at the disposal of small groups of citizens, complicate the problem. The functionaries of the parties and economic unions can be corrupted or terrorised, without any need for military action in the grand style-of the Caesar or 18 Brumaire type.” Gramsci notes that, “modern Caesarism is more a police than a military system,” interesting to keep in mind when considering the police backing of Trump and vice-versa. He even writes “A Caesarist solution can exist even without a Caesar, without any great, "heroic" and representative personality,.” It is a certain political solution to a crisis situation, and one that can be relatively weak or strong: “….Until such movements have gained power, it is always possible to think that they are going to fail-and some indeed have failed (Boulangism itself, which failed as such and then was definitively crushed with the rise of the Dreyfusard movement; the movement of Georges Valois [a French fascist chieftain—JG]; that of General Gajda [Czech general of fascist sympathies who attempted coup—JG]) Research must therefore be directed towards identifying their strengths and weaknesses.” I will try to do that.
I want to propose that America in the aftermath of financial crisis and the disastrous adventure in Iraq was (and remains) in the sort of “crisis of authority,” to use Gramsci’s phrase, or the dual crises that Geoff Eley speaks of, a “crisis of cohesion” and a crisis of legitimacy or consent.” (Gramsci writes of this crisis that the “the content is the crisis of the ruling class's hegemony, which occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example) , or because huge masses (especially of peasants and petit-bourgeois intellectuals) have passed suddenly from a state of political passivity to a certain activity.”)
The country remains in constant situation of political immobilism and deadlock. The political leadership of both parties seemed increasingly unable to deal with the basic issues facing the society. It’s in this context, the charismatic figure Trump entered the G.O.P. primaries as an interloper, not a life-long member of the party’s “General Staff” to borrow again from Gramsci. He presented himself as leading a national restoration and went directly after racial and ethnic minorities. He rolled over the leadership of the party’s attempts to fight him off, because they had lost their grasp on its mass base. We forget the extreme heights of rhetoric Republicans used to try to denounce Trump. In the process, Trump and his supporters put incredible pressure on the old leadership and middle-ranks of the Republican party and Conservative movement. (Sometimes, this included actual threats like in the case of David French, where “alt-right” trolls harassed his family.)
This brings me to the next point. As soon as Trump appeared as a viable political force, the entire mob of the American extreme right, relatively small and disparate as it may be, flocked to Trump and tried to act as his “shock troops” or “commandos” when and where they could. Trump may not be purely fascist in the classical sense, but his style and practice of politics was close enough to excite and mobilize this section of the political fringe. This has not always worked in Trump’s favor politically, but it is not a constituency he has ever been eager to jettison. For instance, he was very careful in his wording around Charlottesville, and about the Proud Boys during the debates, and also pretty gentle about the January 6 rioters even when asking them to go home. Trump clearly views this type of group as important to him politically, and he often speaks of them in menacing terms. He attempted to mobilize this contingent during the January 6 crisis; the tactical results of that in the immediate-term “war of maneuver” were a total failure, but longer-term strategic significance is still yet to be seen. Now, his alliance with such groups may be a political misjudgment on his part, but this proximity should inform the way we think about his politics. It is true that these groups are disparate, small, struggling with police interventions, prosecutions, and internal squabbles, etc. but they nonetheless exist and have some political valence, even if it is largely negative.
It was less terror than the electoral reality of Trump’s popularity within the GOP that eventually cemented the Republican leaderships getting in line behind him. It’s true that they occasionally defy him and his followers, but such decisions are politically fraught and require care. Often the Republican leadership makes little tentative steps to come out from behind Trump’s shadow only to find he still has too much power to openly defy. I said at the beginning of Trump’s presidency that Trump was a constituency without a program for a program without a constituency. The Ryan-era G.O.P. program of cutting entitlements had essentially no constituency.
Paxton writes, “Fascist regimes functioned like an epoxy: an amalgam of two very different agents, fascist dynamism and conservative order, bonded by shared enmity toward liberalism and the Left.” Now the “dynamism” that Trump has provided might be limited, but he is an exciting and galvanizing popular figure for the Right, like nobody they’ve produced in decades (something you can imagine him saying). Despite still needing to rely on the counter-majoritarian parts of the constitution, Trump provided whatever plebiscitary punch the G.O.P. can still muster. From one perspective, Trump is much more of a “mass phenomenon” than fascism ever managed to be: Trump’s 47% of the popular vote outdoes the apogee of Nazi electoral success of 37.3% in a fair election—even after the Reichstag fire and using extreme intimidation and violence as its opponents, Hitler’s party only got 43.9% of the vote. Without extensive violent intimidation and before cooking the election laws, Mussolini’s allies in the National Bloc got less than 20%—his premiership was obtained through parliamentary brinksmanship. Trump may lack the tightly-structured party organs of the classical fascists, but perhaps he makes up for it perhaps with sheer weight of numbers.
In two different elections, Trump solved problems for the G.O.P.’s electoral prospects that seemed to have contradictory solutions: spiking the white vote with appeals to reactionary nostalgia and chauvinism and also reaching out to Hispanic voters. In raw numbers of votes, he delivered more than any Republican in history. And he is still by far the most popular politician within the G.O.P. Of course, there is a Catch-22 here for the Republicans: Trump is also broadly unpopular because of his outrageous antics and rhetoric, but since that is what makes him popular within their constituencies they can’t yet do without him. In any case, Republicans were either impressed or cowed enough not to try to purge Trump in the wake of his defeat—even when they had good opportunities to do so, like in the second impeachment after January 6.
I want to argue part of what puts Trump in meaningful relationship with fascism and its Caesarist precursors is this relationship to the traditional conservative elite. The right was a weakening, brittle coalition whose vision for the country was no longer attracting much interest. Then Trump arrives, as both a rival for power and a kind of strategic reserve of reactionary energy, bringing an excited following with him. The classical fascist movements did not achieve either electoral dominance nor did they affect revolutionary overthrows: they formed coalitions with existing conservative forces. Trump and his movement has accomplished hegemony over the Republican party, and like all forms of hegemony, it involves both threats and benefits, and does not preclude the existence of political contestation. I think the institutional G.O.P. would prefer to do without Trump and has to make their peace with him out of cynicism and necessity.
The Ideology and Mythos of Trumpism
Let’s turn to ideological factors for a moment. I wrote this a while ago to characterize what I called fascist structure of Trump’s political appeal, and I think it’s still accurate:
Trump’s politics contains an inspired, charismatic leader (“I alone can fix it”) on a mission to restore a diseased national body (“Make America Great Again,” Crippled America, etc.), standing in the way of this are corrupt elites and various unclean ethnic minorities. The use of street and paramilitary violence is part of the solution to this corruption, removing obstacles to the leader’s will. Further, no possible abrogation of the providential leader’s power can be legitimate: it is always ipso facto fraudulent, part of the web of deceit spun by the corrupt elites. Often these elites are imagined to be in vast international conspiracies against the good people of the true nation.
This is what the scholar of fascism Roger Griffin calls “the mythic core” of fascism: “Fascism is a genus of political ideology whose mythic core in its various permutations is a palingenetic form of populist ultranationalism.” (“Palingenetic
means to do with rebirth.) To add to this mythic core, we should note the “election fraud” story. I don’t think this is a lie exactly, but a kind of political myth that embodies the underlying sense of self-consciousness and identity of Trump’s followers: they imagine themselves to be dispossessed victims involved in a desperate struggle where any action justified to “take the country back.”
Paxton notes that fascist chieftains provide their people “a privileged relation with history” and we can see Trump doing just that on January 6: “With your help over the last four years, we built the greatest political movement in the history of our country and nobody even challenges that…But our fight against the big donors, big media, big tech, and others is just getting started. This is the greatest in history. There's never been a movement like that.” This is braggadocio one can easily imagine in the mouth of Mussolini.
I discussed the far right “shock troops” and “commandos” of Trump on the street, now let’s look at them on the ideological terrain. Trump’s high-brow ideologues, like those at the Claremont Institute, conceive of him being “beyond conservatism”, a more radical and necessary solution to the depths of national crisis, which has taken on apocalyptic proportions:
The great majority of establishment conservatives who were alarmed and repelled by Trump’s rough manner and disregard for “norms” are almost totally clueless about a basic fact: Our norms are now hopelessly corrupt and need to be destroyed. It has been like this for a while—and the MAGA voters knew it, while most of the policy wonks and magazine scribblers did not… and still don’t. In almost every case, the political practices, institutions, and even rhetoric governing the United States have become hostile to both liberty and virtue. On top of that, the mainline churches, universities, popular culture, and the corporate world are rotten to the core. What exactly are we trying to conserve?…
Overturning the existing post-American order, and re-establishing America’s ancient principles in practice, is a sort of counter-revolution, and the only road forward.
Trump may not fit the bill, but what’s needed is a “providential man” to intercede: “What is needed, of course, is a statesman who understands both the disease afflicting the nation, and the revolutionary medicine required for the cure.”
The author also denigrates both the citizenship of the movement’s enemies and identifies the movement itself with an elite core of true Americans: “most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term.” He goes on to degrade even the humanity of his opponents calling them “zombies” and “human rodents.” This rhetoric is pretty purely fascistic and such polemics can be found in relative abundance.
Then there is another more protoplasmic ideological source in Trump’s appeal to frustrated masculinity. The scholar of Nazi Germany Geoff Eley describes it well:
Masculinist grievance against the human and societal wreckage left by deindustrialization and the gutting of earlier forms of well-paid, long-term, secure, and even reasonably rewarding employment goes far in explaining the affective registers of a Trump campaign rally, while the rhetorics of victimhood, score-settling, and backlash against an array of anathematized ‘others’ travel easily back and forth between those ordinary supporters and the alt-Right websites…If this netherworld topography remains murky, its porousness to the alt-Right is clear enough.
It’s been argued that there’s no exciting utopian or future-oriented part of Trump’s ideological appeal that would put it in proximity to fascism. But this is not quite true— this is a real, albeit minor, theme of Trump’s broader appeal. There was a kind of futurist contingent among Trump’s backers. Look for example at the billionaire Peter Thiel, who also noted the “apocalyptic feel” and the empowering “pessimism” of Trump’s candidacy in 2016, said in the New York Times:
“There are reduced expectations for the younger generation, and this is the first time this has happened in American history,” Mr. Thiel says. “Even if there are aspects of Trump that are retro and that seem to be going back to the past, I think a lot of people want to go back to a past that was futuristic — ‘The Jetsons,’ ‘Star Trek.’ They’re dated but futuristic.”
Here Trumpism is imagined as representing a kind of “reactionary modernism” to use the term from the historian Jeffrey Herf. This sort of notion definitely comes from Thiel’s crony Curtis Yarvin, whose “neo-reactionarism” peddles these syncretic visions of the antique and futuristic, involving schemes of rejiggering the US system to become some kind of authoritarian technocratic regime run by a reactionary Silicon Valley elite.
While not utopian so much as messianic, one has to also mention in this context myths like QAnon, which raises Trump to the level of deity and his opponents as part of a vast satanic conspiracy.
The Social and Economic Basis of Trumpism
In his meditations on Caesarism, Gramsci writes that there can be “progressive” and “reactionary” forms of the phenomenon: “Caesarism is progressive when its intervention helps the progressive force to triumph, albeit with its victory tempered by certain compromises and limitations. It is reactionary when its intervention helps the reactionary force to triumph-in this case too with certain compromises and limitations, which have, however, a different value, extent, and significance than in the former.”
In his analysis of the Dreyfus Affair, one of my chosen touchstones for Trump and contemporary American politics, he writes:
A very important historical episode from this point of view is the so-called Dreyfus affair in France. This too belongs to the present series of observations, not because it led to "Caesarism", indeed precisely for the opposite reason: because it prevented the advent of a Caesarism in gestation, of a clearly reactionary nature. Nevertheless, the Dreyfus movement is characteristic, since it was a case in which elements of the dominant social bloc itself thwarted the Caesarism of the most reactionary part of that same bloc.
I believe Trump is just such a Caesarism (maybe still a Caesarism “in gestation”) of the most reactionary part of the ruling bloc. His constituency includes all the most conservative and regressive elements of the ownership class: the rural and suburban petit bourgeoisie, the same kinds of small and medium business owners who arrayed themselves against the New Deal to resist organized labor and government regulation, the asset-owning local elites that Patrick Wyman identifies as “the gentry” of the United States. In a recent article for Dissent entitled “Family Capitalism and the Small Business Insurrection,” Melinda Cooper writes the “infrastructural basis of today’s far-right resurgence is neither populist nor elitist in any straightforward sense: it is both”:
At this point we need to ask whether the growing militancy of the Republican right can be adequately explained by the triumph of small over big business, as Tea Partiers and Trump himself would have us believe. Even the most sophisticated commentators have taken the Tea Party at its word on this matter. But as Trump’s example reminds us, what is at stake here is less an alliance of the small against the big than it is an insurrection of one form of capitalism against another: the private, unincorporated, and family-based versus the corporate, publicly traded, and shareholder-owned. If most family enterprise was confined to the small business sector in the 1980s—when public corporations accounted for the bulk of big business—this shorthand does not apply today, as more large companies go private and dynastic wealth surges to the forefront of the American economy. The historian Steve Fraser has noted that the “resurgence of what might be called dynastic or family capitalism, as opposed to the more impersonal managerial capitalism many of us grew up with, is changing the nation’s political chemistry.” The family-based capitalism that stormed the White House along with Trump stretches from the smallest of family businesses to the most rambling of dynasties, and crucially depends on the alliance between the two.
It’s worth noting that Trump himself comes from one of these highly exploitative, reactionary family businesses and, as Cooper points out, was fluent in the language of “small business resentment.”
Related to this social base is the “producerist ideology” that Jamelle Bouie recently wrote about:
Although traditionally associated with whiteness and masculinity, this “producerism” holds sway and currency across the electorate. That’s part of why candidates in both parties scramble to associate themselves with blue-collar workers and why some Democratic proponents of the social safety net insist that their policies provide a “hand up, not a handout.”
I think that a part of Donald Trump’s appeal, especially for men, was the degree to which he embodied the producerist ideal. His image, at least, was of the commanding provider, who generated wealth and prosperity for himself and others.
(Dylan Riley, in his 2018 New Left Review essay, already pointed to this “family capital” aspect of Trumpism when he describes Trump’s rule as “patrimonial” to distinguish it from fascism, but also cites the dictatorship of Napoleon III, one of Gramsci’s Caesarist avatars along with Mussolini and fascism, as a touchstone for Trumpism.)
In Fascism and Dictatorship, Nicos Poulantzas notes the “particular and important role given to family in this ideology,” which he relates to “the representations and aspirations of a petty bourgeoisie characterized by isolation and family organization in its economic life, and by its search for a social unit immune to class struggle.” We can add also, “a unit immune to proletarianization and downward mobility,” with both family and race forming forming barriers to decline.
The cross-class appeal of Trumpism comes from its offer of a secure and prosperous place in a healthy, and—either ideologically or racially—homogenous national body, purged of its internal enemies and able to meet its external ones without fear and with unalloyed self-interest.
To borrow again from Gramsci, the question of fascism and Trump is really a question whether or not Trumpism represents a merely quantitative or an actually qualitative change in right-wing politics. The term “fascism” in this light stands for a qualitative shift to another, more aggressive, and more openly violent and repressive form of political action, one that’s willing to dispense or test constitutional constraints if necessary. For the opponents of the “fascism thesis” like Corey Robin, Trump is totally in continuity with the longstanding tendencies on the American Right. But considering the three features I’ve tried to describe—Trumpism’s political situation, its ideological valences, and its social character—I’d argue that is in continuity with American Conservatism, but does also represent a qualitative shift to another register of politics with serious points of resonance with fascism and the other political phenomena Gramsci calls “Caesarist.” (There are also probably American forebears of this in the post-Reconstruction putsches as well as in regional caudillos like Huey Long that could also be profitably brought into this discussion.)
It’s obvious that Trump does not have all the organizational depth and breadth of the classical fascisms, nor is he likely to generate them. Beyond his own limitations as a leader, the way politics and society works in the 21st century is not conducive to the kind of mass organization building of the 20th century. Trump also could not break the logjams and immobilism in American politics with his charisma and power alone, but nonetheless he retains a significant number of supporters who would apparently like him to keep trying. He did largely rely on conservative, constitutional means. But he did attempt more radical means like the constant propaganda offensive against the legitimacy of the election and a putsch-like attempt to overturn the election, even if it was a failure. Failure thought it may have been, it did not end his political career, like General Boulanger’s abortive coup of 1889 did.
I still don’t think Trump is likely to succeed. The inchoate Caesarisms of the Third Republic failed because they did could not find a single “providential man” to focus their energies on. The only available “Caesar” in the latest American case might be too lazy or too much of an idiot. But I think a fair assessment has to acknowledge Trump’s serious weaknesses, but also recognize his staying power and continued political relevance, even after taking some quite desperate gambles. Meanwhile, the more conventional conservative and progressive forces seem also to be struggling to solve the country’s serious crises. As for “Trumpism” as a category of politics apart from Trump the individual, I think we still have to observe carefully whether it is a Caesarism stillborn or still “in gestation.” In aid of those observations, the cases of fascism will remain an important context.